Learning Reading and Writing in (Early) Christian Nubia

Searching for the traces of a learning process in the past is not an easy task.

For Greco-Roman Egypt (from Ptolemaic to Byzantine times), Raffaella Cribiore‘s book “Writing, Teachers, and Students in Graeco-Roman Egypt” is the most informative contribution. For the purposes of this post, three main points from Cribiore’s book should be taken in consideration:

  1. She distinguishes between teachers’ and students’ hands, and considers the writings identified as belonging to the former as models for what the latter produced in the learning process.
  2. She identifies four school hands:
  3. The zero-grade hand
  4. The alphabetic hand
  5. The evolving hand
  6. The rapid hand

The first three of these hands can be quite easily identified in the different catagories of school exercises that she recognizes in the material she studied.

  1. These are the main categories of school exercises:
  2. Letters
  3. Alphabets
  4. Syllabaries
  5. Lists
  6. Writing Exercises
  7. Short passages
  8. Long passages
  9. Scholia Minora
  10. Compositions
  11. Grammar

The zero-grade hand disappears as the level of difficulty increases, while the rapid hand is almost completely absent from the easiest tasks. Unless of course a rapid hand is that of a teacher and the text is a model for students to copy.

These three points are important for us, because they can help us understand the process of learning how to read and write in Christian Nubia too, while at the same time they show the direction for an insightful paleographic exercise that has not been undertaken yet.

But let me take things in the right order:

In the DBMNT, there are 20 entries returning from a search for “Type of Text: School Exercise”. The commonest trait of these texts identified as school exercises is that 11 are inscriptions on wall, almost all painted, and quite often consisting of lists of words beginning with Greek letters, like gamma, zeta, theta, phi (three times), or lists of words beginning with combination of letters, like omicron, upsilon and phi, or nu and ksi.

In the work of Cribiore there is reference to a “considerable number of lists of words”, both by students’ and by teachers’ hands. However, there is no evidence for the use of walls for the practice of learning a language.

This is a very intriguing starting point for what I’ll try to convey. For all the eleven examples of school exercises written on walls come from Nubian churches (or monastic spaces). It is worth considering therefore that these were lists written by teachers who belonged to the church hierarchy as exercises of learning for their students that may also have been members of the church hierarchy, novices in either literacy or spirituality (or both), rather than the outcome of students’ efforts.

In any case, this type of Nubian school exercises linked with the church and dominating the statistics of this category of texts shows that learning to read and write in Nubia was a task assigned to the clerics and monks.

If one would wonder about the use of the walls of sacred spaces for such practices, the answer lies both with the holiness of learning and writing, and with the sacredness of inscribing lists, as has been shown for example by Ingvild Gilhus.

Now, some more of the texts identified as Nubian school exercises seem again like the works of the teachers rather than of the students, like a verse of Menander from a wall at a monastery at Old Dongola that Adam Lajtar published in ZPE in 2009 and wisely commented as follows:

“It is rather the result or a by-product of school education in the Greek style. It is the work of someone who attended school in which he learned this sentence and memorized it for life.”

How can we identify then some “real” school exercises, products of the effort of the students?

One way to achieve that is by turning our attention to the most elementary of such exercises, like the alphabets, the single letters and the syllabaries, and then combine the data available with a close paleographic examination of the hands’ acquired abilities or lack thereof.

Such a work has not been done with Nubian texts yet; but there are certain very promising starting points such as the following:

An ostrakon from Qasr el Wizz, written in a very uncertain hand, combines letters and a list of Greek words beginning with the letter ksi.

D. 015006-E42064

Interestingly, the letter ksi is not written in the casual Nubian manner, namely as a Coptic hori with a superlinear stroke, but in a more Greek or Coptic manner. This difference constitutes a valuable insight into the way of learning to write in this Nubian monastery, and tells us that it was a non-Nubian in the role of the teacher from whom the student at Wizz was copying.

This observation brings me back to the previous entry.

Can it be that we have evidence for these very early attempts to form Nubian literacy on the basis of the Christianization process in Lower Nubia through contact with Coptic Egypt?

Well, among the twenty school exercises in the DBMNT, only eight of them can be dated, and again only two ostraka belong to the second half of the first millennium CE.

The first case is an ostrakon from Nag’el Sheima, which is categorized as a school exercise on the basis of the problematic syntax of the text, something that does not convince me after having read Coptic documentary texts on ostraka from Egypt.

However, the case from Faras is far more interesting: It is a 6th-7th century ostrakon with syllabization in Coptic! Unfortunately, there is no photo published to comment upon the handwriting, but this find remains the best insight into the first attempts to learn writing through the Coptic language in the formative period of Christianization in Lower Nubia.


A final note: most of the texts classified as “school exercises” in the DBMNT are of unidentified language, obviously because of the similarity of the writing systems between Greek, Coptic, and Old Nubian. When the language can be indeed identified, then it is mostly Greek. Old Dongola provides the best evidence for teaching in Greek, although most of the material remains unpublished, but has been referred to in the aforementioned article by Adam Lajtar. Perhaps teaching in Greek was more an Upper Nubian practice? With this, I have come very close to what I will be talking about in Leeds in less than a week from now. See you there or expect some report here!

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3 Responses to Learning Reading and Writing in (Early) Christian Nubia

  1. ounoginiri says:

    very interesting!!!!!
    I’m waiting to hear more about the wonderful writings- greek coptic old nubian- the transmission of texts, the role of the monasteries, in brief, your report from the Congress at Leeds.

    do you know about the implements of writing in this area-any instruments-and inks?

    thank you!!!!!

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